When Yaser Haddad went to Turkey after fighting broke out in his native Syria in 2011, he had about 80 liras — around $21 — in his pocket. Today, he is a millionaire tour operator in Istanbul employing 45 people.
“I would take every job I could get,” Haddad, 32, told the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet, describing his first years in Turkey. He saved money until he could set up his own company in Istanbul in 2014. Haddad’s big break came when he organised an Istanbul holiday for a tourist group of 30 wealthy visitors from Qatar. “They left some serious money here,” he said.
Haddad’s rags-to-riches story puts a spotlight on the entrepreneurship of refugees determined to build a new life. It also demonstrates a challenge for Turkey, which is hosting 2.7 million Syrians. Many of them were unlikely to return to live in their home country.
A poll conducted earlier this year for the Human Development Foundation (Ingev), a Turkish NGO, said that three-out-of-four Syrians in Turkey said they want to gain Turkish citizenship and one-out-of-two Syrians said they see their future in Turkey. Ingev said Haddad and other Syrians have created more than 8,000 businesses providing approximately 100,000 jobs in Turkey.
Turkey won international praise for its willingness to host millions of Syrians when other countries refused to take them in. Ankara also agreed to strictly police Turkey’s western sea border with Greece to stop migrants from moving on to Europe, after millions crossed the Aegean in 2015. In return, the European Union spent about $1 billion for education and health care for refugees in Turkey, news reports said.
As the conflict in Syria drags on, experts said Turkey must confront the fact that most Syrians will stay permanently. Following the establishment of so-called safe zones in northern Syria after a military intervention by Turkey last year, tens of thousands of refugees have returned to Syria, the government in Ankara said. Only 5% of Syrians live in Turkish refugee camps.
However, the vast majority of refugees are likely to stay.
“Turkey has done a lot to help the refugees,” said Behlul Ozkan, a political scientist at Istanbul’s Marmara University. “Now it’s time it did more to integrate them.”
Ingev President Vural Cakir agreed that refugees tend to stay in their host country if they do not return home within a relatively short time. “Normally those staying in border camps return to their countries after a certain period of time but, once a year passes and asylum-seekers are scattered throughout the country, it gets harder to return,” he told Turkey’s state-run news agency Anadolu.
The views of Mohammed, a 20-year-old Syrian from Aleppo who has lived in Istanbul for two years, appear to confirm Cakir’s assessment. The young man, who only gave his first name, said he was working in his father’s shop in Istanbul selling refrigerators. He said he had no intention of returning to Aleppo anytime soon. “There’s a war going on there,” Mohammed said. “My father is here; that’s the most important thing.”
Turkey has a long history of coping with refugee inflows, starting with the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Muslims from former Ottoman provinces in the Balkans and the Caucasus in the time of the foundation of the republic following the first world war. The country took in members of the Turkish minority from Bulgaria in the 1980s and Kurds from Iraq in the 1990s.
The massive influx of Syrians, however, has tested Turkey’s limits. In some cities, Syrians are so numerous that they form a majority: The border city of Kilis officially puts its population at 91,000 Turks and 130,000 Syrians. Some Turks complain that Syrian refugees drive down wages by working illegally. “They work construction for 30 liras ($8) a day and without any insurance,” said Ibrahim, who sells tea in an Istanbul park. “No Turk can work for that.”
The Ingev poll results indicated that 87% of Syrians in Turkey do not receive any support from the state and most of those who can get a job work in the informal sector because they lack official work permits.
The Syrians are creating a “parallel society” in Turkey because they lack language skills and jobs, the foundation warned. The survey said about 75% of Syrians are unable to read or write Turkish and only about half can speak the language. More than 30% of Syrians lack any kind of formal education and the “most common daily activity among Syrians is watching Arabic TV channels.”
As Syrians turn from refugees to permanent residents, Turkey is debating whether to grant them citizenship to ease integration. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said earlier this year that he was looking into the matter, a move seen by opposition politicians as an effort to create a new pool of voters for his Justice and Development Party (AKP) ahead of local, parliamentary and presidential elections in two years.
Ozkan said he doubted that giving Turkish passports to Syrians would be a vote-winner for Erdogan. Any potential increase of votes from Syrian Turks would likely be offset by a negative reaction in other parts of the electorate, he said. “There might be a backlash by nationalists and secularists,” he said.
Opinion polls suggest most Turks reject the idea of giving Turkish citizenship to Syrians.